The Sublime Danielle Steel: For the Love of Supermarket Schlock
August 3, 2022
By Dan Sinykin
Sean Fader, Sugar Daddy
IN 1978, BILL GROSE, editor-in-chief at Dell, decided to make a star of a young author from San Francisco. Grose was a thumper of novelizations from popular film and television, a fan of media tie-ins, a man with his finger in the air to feel the direction of the wind. Dell, a mass-market house, had recently been acquired by the trade giant Doubleday, which also owned radio and television stations and would in two years buy the New York Mets. Grose and Dell were looking for the next big thing. This woman, Grose thought, was it. She had a made-for-marketing name, too. Danielle Steel.
She wasn’t born with that name, exactly. She cut it from Danielle Fernandes Dominique Schuelein-Steel. Her mother was a Catholic Portuguese American and her father a Jewish German refugee who fled to New York City from Hitler’s Third Reich. They divorced when Steel was eight. She had a lonely childhood living with her father in Manhattan at 45th and Lexington, “a very adult kind of childhood,” she said, attending dinner parties and watching adults flirt or talk politics. She attended the elite Lycée Français de New York, fantasizing about becoming a nun. In her teens, she attended haute couture shows in Paris and fell for fashion. Her grandmother gave her her first couture suit when she was 17. She married a wealthy French banker, Claude-Eric Lazard, when she was 18 and studied at Parsons School of Design and NYU. In 1968, at 20, she gave birth to a daughter, Beatrix, but she wanted more than to be a mother. She saw two women on The Tonight Show talking about their PR firm, Supergirls. The next day she called to apply for a job.
Steel arrived at work looking like Audrey Hepburn: big eyes, short hair, outfitted in the season’s high fashion. She was quickly named director of public relations and vice president of marketing. She buzzed around the office with incredible energy, chain-smoking, making needlepoint kitsch, and typing letters to prospective clients in French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese (if not always with perfect grammar). One of her clients, an editor at Ladies’ Home Journal, saw promise in Steel as a writer, and told her so.
She took him seriously and wrote her first novel in the summer of 1971. She hired an agent and sold the book to Pocket Books, which published it in 1973. The protagonist is a woman who works for advertising campaigns and women’s magazines, a young divorced single mother who moves to San Francisco from New York to restart her life. There she falls in love with a filmmaker who also works in advertising, a bad boy who gets her pregnant and, when she refuses an abortion, sends her back to New York. But she can’t quit him — until he dies in a freak accident on set. She has the baby, but the baby dies within the day. In the end, our heroine runs off with the art director of the women’s mag where she now works.
It’s a bawdy post-feminist romance, closer to Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, which came out that same year, than Kathleen Woodiwiss’s chaste The Flame and the Flower from the year before, which helped build a massive audience for historical romance. Steel’s debut bears traces of literary ambition, expressed by her avatar-protagonist who brings a short story anthology with her to set just in case she has time to read and is thrilled by a dinner party where the discussion rushes from “Japanese literature” to “the political implications of American literature vs Russian literature at the turn of the century.” But the novel was primly panned in Publishers Weekly; its protagonist, “for all her beauty, sophistication, and use of the proper four-letter words, is not very interesting, and neither is her story,” read the verdict. The book sold modestly.
Steel, like her protagonist, moved to San Francisco. She had separated from Claude-Eric and lived for a spell in a commune with a band of street musicians. She often visited a friend in the hospital who was imprisoned as a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam but who had negotiated an early release to participate in a medical study for NASA. The patient in the next room, Danny Zugelder, an inveterate bank robber, developed a crush on Steel, and the two began corresponding, which continued after he was sent back to Lompoc Correctional Institute. He says that they consummated the relationship in the prison’s women’s bathroom. She rented a flat in Pacific Heights and took a job as a copywriter for an ad agency and wrote fiction at night. Zugelder was released in 1973 but was arrested again and sent to the state penitentiary in Vacaville in 1975 for robbery and sexual assault. He and Steel married in the prison canteen that year. She published her second novel, a romance about a socialite and her ex-con, prison-abolitionist lover, in 1977, and her third, about a man falsely accused of rape, in 1978. Both did decently well for Dell, selling several hundred thousand copies.
That’s about when Bill Grose decided it was time to make her famous.
When I met Sean Fader, he was wearing a pink tee that said, “Ask Me About Danielle Steel.” His beard was auburn, thick, well trimmed, and flecked with gray. His eyes were cobalt and intensely present. Fader is a conceptual artist working with photography and performance and at the moment he — like I — was obsessed with Steel. “Please,” he said, “come into my studio.”
There, on a small table, sat a typewriter, a bowl of grapes, and a copy of Steel’s novel Daddy. On learning that Steel writes on a 1946 Olympia, he rebuilt the closest he could acquire, a 1954 Smith Corona Silent Super, and used it to type her a very long letter with a strange request. He wanted her to collaborate with him on a photographic project about the original sugar daddy.
In 1990, Steel bought the Spreckels Mansion, a French Baroque chateau in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, built in 1913 by Adolph Spreckels for his wife, Alma. Spreckels inherited a Hawaiian sugar plantation staffed by Japanese immigrants and the largest sugar refinery on the West Coast. Fader wrote to Steel, “Since he was 24 years older than her and his money came from sugar, she called him her ‘sugar daddy.’” (Fader acknowledges that the couple didn’t popularize the phrase: that happened a few years later with a serialized story in a Syracuse paper and then the still-extant candy, which rebranded after trying “Papa Sucker.”) Alma chose the site for the chateau because of its views of the San Francisco Bay. “Is it still true that you can see six counties from the circular observatory?” Fader asks Steel. “Did you know that she put the pool in her/your backyard to swim naked while drinking pitchers of martinis in order to piss off the neighbors?”
After seven typed pages, including a description of how he worked with a milliner to build a replica of a flamboyant wool-and-ostrich-feather hat of Alma’s, Fader comes to his request: “I want to take a picture in your home with me as Adolph and a twinky boy 24 years younger than me as Alma. I want to model the photograph after several Rodin sculptures and a few early 20th-century paintings that Alma had in her collection.” And he wanted Steel in the background.
Trying flattery, he wrote, regarding her Instagram, “If you find you are getting a lot of followers in the Southeast, it may be because of me.” To be candid, reader, it may also be because of me.
It was unexpected. She used to be like Muzak to me, or JonBenét Ramsey: supermarket schlock. I have no memories before she was there, so I assumed she always had been, ageless, outside of time, a brand like little Debbie from Little Debbie is a brand.
But then I started studying the publishing industry. Why, of all possible book worlds, had we ended up with ours? Once I posed that question, I could see that Danielle Steel was a cosmic accident whose story revealed the hidden logic of contemporary publishing, what I call the conglomerate era for reasons I will explain in a moment. This is to say, at first my interest was professional. How long could it stay that way, though, given the life she’s led and the books she’s written? The more I learned about her, the more obsessed I became. Soon she was the only topic I wanted to talk or tweet about. I went out with friends and harangued them for hours: Claude-Eric, Supergirls, the Vacaville wedding; the vault into superstardom; novels with titles such as Message From Nam, The Klone and I, and Toxic Bachelors. Eventually we’d arrive at the difficult present.
Something unsettling has happened to Steel. For the first couple decades, she published one or two novels most years. From 1997 through 2014, she plateaued at a steady three. In 2015, she ticked up to four. Then, in 2016, an alarming six. She’s done six or seven annually since. That’s a novel every 50 days or so for a woman now 74 years old.
“I’ve reacted with amazement, shock, and outrage when people have asked me in my fan mail, who writes my books,” Steel wrote in a blog post in 2012, when she was working at a much more reasonable pace. “WHO writes my BOOKS??? Are you kidding? Who do you think writes my books, as I hover over my typewriter for weeks at a time, working on a first draft, with unbrushed hair, in an ancient nightgown, with every inch of my body aching after typing 20 or 22 hours a day […]” She enumerates the bodily horrors of such a regimen: bleeding fingers, popped veins in her hands, and, of course, an aching back. Nevertheless, she “would never just hand off an outline for someone else to write.”
More than an insane sleep schedule makes her productivity possible. As of 2012, she employed three assistants — Heather, Allee, and Alex — who protected her from paparazzi, fielded her phone calls, and talked with “lawyers, bankers, plumbers,” handling all her business. They fed her, too, given that she doesn’t want “to stop and eat anything complicated” when she’s writing. (“I have terrible eating habits, and in my early days for some reason lived on a writing diet of liverwurst and Oreo Cookies, which became the subject of many jokes.”) I presume this setup persists. She has a researcher on retainer, Nancy Eisenbarth, who supplies specificity, past and present: “I drive her insane, calling her at 3 am, or sending her emails, needing to know what floor something is on, how many people died in a famous fire, what is the decor of a certain restaurant, or a detail about a unit of the French Resistance in WW2.” One of their most ambitious endeavors resulted in the 500-page historical romance set during the Russian Revolution, Zoya.
Steel’s editor, Carole Baron, gives her the standard editorial treatment. “She sends me encouraging comments about what she does like, and then she sends the manuscript back to me, with comments on every page, whole sections torn apart or rejected, things she wants changed.” Steel’s response is relatable: “I have to brace myself and try to be brave about it,” she writes, admitting, “I must say Shit a thousand times” while reading Baron’s notes. 
This whole operation enables a robust churn. Still: What happened in 2016? Six, seven novels each year is ludicrous, even for Steel. She would have us believe that her life has always only been about her children and her books, and now that her children are grown up, she devotes all her time to writing — though she managed to binge the latest season of Bridgerton. Could anyone love to write this much? Or is this a Harper Lee situation? Is she being preyed on by her minders? Or has she become cynical, cashing in on the full value of her brand by getting yet a bit more help with the new books?
Is her overproduction a matter of passion, the perfervid devotion of one woman? Or is it a matter of profit, leaning into the mechanical reproduction of the Steel factory made possible by a familiar formula? These questions take us to the heart of Danielle Steel, or perhaps her industrial core, and illuminate much more beside: the logic of publishing under conglomeration that was activated in part by the invention of Danielle Steel.
In Steel’s The Klone and I, the clone, Paul Klone, is a sex machine. Much of the plot revolves around the irresistible pleasure the protagonist, Stephanie, gets from Paul’s signature sex act: what begins as a double flip, which, with practice, becomes a triple, then a quadruple. There’s nothing more than what it seems. They flip through the air while having sex.
Stephanie is a wealthy middle-aged divorcée who falls in love with Peter, the head of a Silicon Valley startup that specializes in bionics, “some kind of combination of biology and electronics.” She lives in New York City and he’s bicoastal, so when he leaves on a business trip, he tells her he will send her a surprise: Paul Klone, of course. Paul looks identical to Peter, but — the Klone has a mind of his own. Peter dresses conservatively in blue Oxford shirts, khakis, and Gucci shoes. Paul only wears Versace. He first arrives in “fluorescent green satin pants” and “black satin cowboy boots” with “rhinestone buckles.” Paul charms Stephanie’s kids, buys her outrageous jewelry, and busts up Peter’s silver Jaguar, repainting it yellow with red rims.
Paul Klone occasions the novel’s crisis. “It was impossible to sort out who was who and what was what, and whom I was doing what with, and why,” thinks Stephanie. “It was all so damnably confusing. It was like sleeping with two men, all rolled into one, and I was never quite sure where one man ended and the other began.”
The novel expresses anxiety about uncontrollable replicability. It was published in 1998, as Steel settled into what would become a long, steady run of three novels each year. Would readers worry that her enhanced output was the result of some kind of combination of biology and electronics? Would they confuse Danielle Steel the conglomerate brand with Danielle Steel of flesh-and-blood, who banged out the book not on a computer but a typewriter? Would she be able to persuade them that her work remained the real thing? The Klone and I is Frankenstein or Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — both of which Steel shouts out in the book — rewritten to address concerns about contemporary authorship and branding. When a team is required to maintain productivity, who really is responsible for the text? In the end, Stephanie and Peter banish Paul to the factory — where for some reason they insist his head will be removed — endorsing monogamy and reasserting the force of the real, the authentic, against the seduction of mechanical reproduction.
This contest is what most of Steel’s writing is about: it is generated from the tension between the expressive individual and mechanical reproduction; it is the novelistic equivalent of the defensive all-caps and multiple question marks in “WHO writes my BOOKS???” The ur-text, which reveals the foundational trauma that Steel is compelled to repeat, is 1978’s The Promise.
Dell acquired rights to novelize a screenplay called The Promise, flagrantly derivative of Erich Segal’s Love Story. Segal, a professor of classics at Yale who translated ancient Greek drama, had become a celebrity thanks to the outrageous popularity of his novel about the doomed love between a wealthy Harvard hockey jock and an artsy Radcliffe girl from a modest background. (Segal used a couple of Harvard roommates, whom he met while there on sabbatical, as the basis for the guy: Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones.) Love Story set a record for largest initial mass-market printing with 4,350,000 copies in 1970.
Naturally, others caught the scent of lucre — not least in novelization. Segal had penned Love Story as a screenplay first, then wrote it as a novel at Paramount’s prompting. Subsequently, publishing went hard for novelizations. Bill Grose had a thin imitation on his hands with The Promise. Like in Love Story, a wealthy Harvard boy and an artsy girl — in this case a poor orphan — fall in love but are prohibited from marrying by the boy’s parent. Plots diverge from there, and splendidly. In Love Story, the couple marry anyway but the girl dies of leukemia. In The Promise, the couple flees to elope, getting into a car accident in which the boy ends up in a coma and the girl has her face torn off. With the boy in the coma, his mother offers the girl a deal: she will leave for San Francisco and never contact her son again; in exchange, she will send the girl to the best plastic surgeon in the country to reconstruct her face. The girl accepts, and leaves, and when the boy wakens from his coma his mother tells him his lover is dead. Nevertheless, they find each other and declare their undying love.
Grose assigned the project to Danielle Steel. It was time to make her a brand, a writer readers could trust to be as reliable as Pepsi. His investment grabbed the attention of Ray Walters, publishing industry reporter for The New York Times. “To make every American woman aware of Danielle Steel,” wrote Walters, “Dell will spend $300,000 on every promotion gimmick known to the book trade, from television, radio, and newspaper advertising to shopping bags and spectacular bookstore displays.”
Romance was on its way up. Avon had developed huge audiences for Johanna Lindsey, Rosemary Rogers, and Kathleen Woodiwiss in the 1970s. Harlequin, too, made its name selling romance. By 1979, Harlequin, which had begun the decade as an obscure Canadian press, was second in mass-market sales, behind only Bantam, but with a far greater profit margin. Why? It paid small advances for formulaic genre books with built-in audiences. Harlequin’s success was engineered by W. Lawrence Heisey, a Harvard MBA and “self-described ‘soap salesman’ for Proctor and Gamble.” Other houses would learn from Harlequin — they would have to.
From 1960 to 1973, book sales climbed 70 percent, but between 1973 and 1979 they added less than another six percent, and declined in 1980. Meanwhile, global media conglomerates had consolidated the industry. What had been small publishers typically owned by the founders or their heirs were now subsidiaries of CBS, Gulf + Western (later Paramount), MCA, RCA, or Time, Inc. The new owners demanded growth, implementing novel management techniques. Editors had once been the uncontested suzerains of title acquisition. In the 1970s they watched their power wane. Aggressive literary agents staged high-pressure auctions and came for subsidiary rights. Houses brought in directors dedicated to selling those rights — for reprinting, translation, and film and TV adaptation. Marketing departments grew and gathered influence, producing baroque campaigns of total saturation for top titles. It was the decade of book promotion, the blockbuster auction, fiction factories, the purported death of the midlist. It was Bill Grose’s decade.
Steel was being forged as an emblem of the conglomerate era. What could she do about it? That was the question she brought to The Promise. Nancy, the female protagonist, arrives in San Francisco as a “faceless” aspiring artist. (She literally lacks a face.) Much of the novel is dedicated to her relationship with her plastic surgeon who is going to remake her. Nancy tells him how, growing up, she found the nuns in her orphanage wonderful: “So much so that,” like Steel herself, “I wanted to be one.” But he makes her promise not to become a nun now because he has ambitious plans for her: he is “going to make her someone very special.”
And he does. She reveals her new face, her new self, at an art opening that showcases photographs she has taken during the 18-month reconstruction. “Your work is going to be very important, darling,” the plastic surgeon tells her. “You’re a star. […] You’ll have every photographer’s agent in the country calling you by next week.”
What we have here is an allegory. Like the surgeon takes the effectively parentless, faceless, but artistic and ambitious Nancy who has come to San Francisco from New York, repackages her, and presents her to the world, so does Bill Grose do the same for Danielle Steel. She came to him after the failure of her first novel, a nobody. He published her next two, but truly introduced her to the world with The Promise.
So far so little agency for Steel. How could she prove that she was not another bionic San Francisco product, that she was the real thing?
The surgeon remakes Nancy almost beyond recognition. She has a new face, a new name. But the novel’s desideratum is to bring the star-crossed lovers, separated by a traumatic car crash, back together. Michael, the male protagonist, who fell into a coma and was told Nancy had died, recognizes the unique signature of her art. He sees her photographs and, despite the fact that she used to paint, knows she is the author: a testimony to her authenticity. Even if her appearance has changed, her heart remains the same. Likewise, much of the old Steel remains in The Promise and beyond — her breezy style, the cross-coast romance, the middlebrow unity of art and commerce — at the cost of whatever edge she might have had. Her previous books were adult novels that dealt with adult problems, like abortions and affairs, death and divorce. But here the protagonists, while nominally adults, are infantilized on every page: “kiddos” behaving like “third graders” who want to return to the moral simplicity of childhood.
My passion for Danielle Steel is funny, but it’s not, in the end, a joke. Neither is Fader’s, which you’ll see if you watch the video in which a voice actor reads his letter to her. The closer one comes to Steel, the clearer it becomes that the madness of her being is the madness of our times: working 20 hours each day, she has become vertiginous sublimity itself.
At bottom, that sublimity emerges from a refusal. It is as if the compulsion to prove that she is the author, the one who writes the books, has made her regress and arrested her development — remember the Klone’s sexual flips — at around age 12. There is a childishness to her insistence on the myth of the Romantic author, a willed ignorance of the compromises of adulthood, covering her eyes so as not to see the industry of which she is a product. With a childlike seriousness, she wants to be the inspired creator solely responsible for her art, but everything about her art — its formulaic plots, its women’s-mag prose style, its mass production — betrays its mechanicity.
To be Danielle Steel the human is to be forever obscured by Danielle Steel the brand. Her response is to make every novel a plea for recognition as a real person with real feelings. She writes romances where the couple’s meet cute and happy ending are less important than the courtship between her and her reader. Her oeuvre asks a single question, over and over and over: do you love me?
Dan Sinykin is an assistant professor of English at Emory University.
 Baron has had an extraordinary career in publishing. Finding it impossible to land a job as a woman on Wall Street in the 1960s, she started at Holt, Rinehart and Winston where she copyedited Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. She moved to Dutton, then to Pocket Books where she became a vice president in 1978, then to Crown as editor-in-chief, before becoming publisher of Dell in 1982, where she met Steel. Baron soon left Dell to keep climbing and Steel stayed, but the pair have stuck together.